WASHINGTON — The U.S. Air Force will not be able to fully utilize a key capability aboard its new generation of missile warning satellites until at least 2016 because the associated ground-system software will not be completed until then, according to a top service official.

The issue affects the speed with which the Air Force can assess and provide appropriate warnings of missile launches around the world.

Gen. William Shelton, commander of Air Force Space Command, told reporters here March 22 that some of the ground software for the Space Based Infrared System (SBIRS) missile warning satellites has proved more complex than anticipated. In addition, the Air Force ran into “money issues” on the SBIRS program that led it to focus on getting the first satellite into orbit while deferring work on the ground segment, he said.

The first dedicated SBIRS satellite, dubbed GEO-1, was placed into geosynchronous orbit in May 2011 and is expected to begin operations before the end of the year. Each geosynchronous SBIRS satellite has two main infrared sensors: a scanning sensor that sweeps over large swaths of territory watching for missile launches and a staring sensor that stays focused on a smaller area to provide immediate notification of launches.

The software to exploit the staring sensor data in real time — military parlance for immediately — will not be ready until 2016 or 2017, Shelton said at a Defense Writers Group breakfast. In the meantime, he said, the service is taking down data from the staring sensor and sending it to the National Air and Space Intelligence Center (NASIC) at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, for analysis, he said.

“We are going to continue to investigate the possibilities of taking advantage of all of the SBIRS capabilities in a much more tactical way over the next few years here,” Shelton said.

NASIC officials are analyzing the data from the first SBIRS satellite every day, he said.

The SBIRS constellation will consist of four dedicated satellites in geosynchronous orbit as well as infrared sensors hosted aboard two classified satellites in highly elliptical orbit. The hosted sensors are in orbit and the second of the dedicated satellites is scheduled to launch this spring.

Lockheed Martin Corp. of Bethesda, Md., is prime contractor on the SBIRS program, with responsibility for both the space and ground segments.

In a written response to questions, Lockheed Martin spokesman Michael Friedman said the GEO-1 satellite is undergoing certification that will culminate in real-time availability of its scanning-sensor data by the end of the year. “As part of the program’s baseline, Lockheed Martin is currently on schedule to provide a ground system upgrade to enable starer data utilization for the real-time mission. Lockheed Martin is aware that the outstanding performance of the GEO-1 starer has sparked increased demand for the data throughout the user community, and we are committed to delivering for the warfighter.”



SBIRS Infrared Payload Transmits First Image